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Dave Liebman Big Band: A Tribute to Wayne Shorter

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The reputation of composer Wayne Shorter is a growth stock likely to continue to soar for decades on end. But unlike Duke Ellington or even Charles Mingus, Shorter has written relatively little for large ensembles. Still, his supple melodies, harmonic sophistication and knack for evocative themes and titles make his work beguiling to big-band arrangers.

For this Shorter tribute, Mats Holm-quist, arranger for the 19-piece Dave Liebman Big Band, tumbles into seven small-ensemble compositions the maestro wrote during the mid-1960s. The set opens with a pair of remarkably different tunes from Speak No Evil, originally recorded in 1964. For the impeccably titled ballad “Infant Eyes,” Holmquist poaches the horns in a pastel swirl of wonder and innocence, a rich and poignant treatment. That’s followed by the sidewalk strut of the title track to Speak No Evil, with its seductive, easy-rolling melody that the band understandably returns to a trifle too often.

Another ballad rendition you’ll linger for and replay is “Nefertiti.” Here the brass sections are tracked and mixed a whisker askew to create a slight, ethereal echo that captures the unsettling, almost freebop-ish feel of the original. It’s not until the final track, “Black Nile,” from 1964’s Night Dreamer, that the group cuts loose with the rousing surges, counterpoints and fanfares that are big-band staples. Holmquist has done an admirable job.

But they don’t call this the Dave Liebman Big Band for nothing. Liebman takes the majority of the band’s solos wielding the soprano saxophone-hardly the most potent or cooperative instrument while fronting such a large aggregation. But Lieb pulls it off. He holds true to the sophisticated bop spirit of the tunes, resisting both the clarinet-style toodling from the swing era and Shorter’s more gnomic approach to the soprano. Except for the interplay between trombonist Tim Sessions and guitarist Vic Juris on “Yes or No,” and a gorgeous alto flugelhorn solo by Scott Reeves on “Iris,” Liebman owns all the memorable improvisations. They provide crucial ballast to Holmquist’s arrangements-and help reaffirm Shorter’s genius.

Originally Published